2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” 8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. 15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”
Some of you might remember that this past February, I said that if I were a really good preacher, if I really spoke the gospel to you, you would want to throw me off a cliff afterwards. But there have been no threats on my life or my ministry here yet, so perhaps I have failed. But the reason I said that is because the gospel text for that Sunday was Jesus’ first sermon to the people in his hometown. Jesus preached that he was sent to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, and to let the oppressed go free. And then he gave a couple of sermon illustrations of what that looks like. And one of the illustrations in Jesus’ sermon was our Old Testament text for today about the healing of Naaman. What we need to know about Naaman is that Naaman is the enemy of Israel. It is a story about God’s grace and mercy having no boundaries. That God’s mercy can even reach over the walls and borders into enemy territory. Now, after Jesus preached that sermon with that illustration…the people in his hometown tried to kill him.
And so we are reminded that to be a follower of Jesus is to proclaim God’s love and mercy for the most unlikely. To be a Christian is not to be a good person, it is to be a risky person.
Now, let’s dig deeper into this story of Naaman. Naaman is the leader of the Syrian army. We hear a lot about the violence in Syria today. It sounds like the same was true back in those days. In this text, we learn that Naaman is the leader of this army. He is powerful; he is victorious on the battlefield; he is a powerful and mighty warrior. But he also has leprosy. A flesh eating disease. In those days, leprosy did not simply mean the rotting of one’s skin, but to have leprosy also meant that you were a social outcast. You were to be kept out of society, unseen. And when you were seen, people were to keep their distance from you. Meaning people with leprosy were never hugged. Were never touched. No one ever said to them, “It’s good to see you.”
My friend, Alan Storey, gave me great insight into this story. And I use much of it here. He says that while Naaman’s armor could protect him from outside enemies, it could not protect him from that which was eating him up from the inside. While the armor can’t protect him from his leprosy, it can help hide it. And so Naaman is leading this double life – he is this mighty and successful warrior and he is a leper who suffers silently. Always afraid that the truth might come out. He is fearful that he might someday be found out for who he really is.
The same is true for us, isn’t it? So often we don’t want our double life exposed. We don’t want that which eats us up from within to be revealed. And keeping it hidden is exhausting.
I have a confession to make – I lied to a friend this past week. It was one of those lies I thought was best for everyone involved. You know, the white lie. I thought it was maybe justifiable. That no one would get hurt. But then when I was with him this week, I spent much of the time fearful that he might find me out. Does he know? Can he see it on my face? Can he hear it in my tone of voice? Does he know, does he know, does he know…? And it was exhausting. Trying to keep hidden that which was eating me up from the inside.
Do you know that feeling? Have you ever worries about something coming out about you? And it just weighs on you. And so you do everything you can to keep it secret. And it is so tiring. I think that’s how Naaman felt as a warrior with leprosy.
Now as the story continues, Naaman’s army has captured and taken a young girl from Israel. You can see why Naaman is considered the enemy of Israel. He captures their children. And this young girl becomes the slave to Naaman’s wife. This girl has been taken from her home and her family. At the core of her being, she should hate Naaman. And yet, in the story, she is the very beginning of his salvation. Knowing of his leprosy, because she is the slave, she is the one who does laundry. She knows all the secrets. And she says, “If only he could see the prophet in Israel who could cure him.” Rather than telling the secret of her captor, she begins the process of his healing. As Alan Storey says, in the story this servant girl is nameless, as is so often the case of those on the bottom of society. But we know her name – her name is Grace. She offers love to a man who doesn’t deserve it.
In Confirmation, we have been talking a lot about grace and we have a definition we say every week. That grace is the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. This servant girl’s name is Grace, because that is what she shows – the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. Even Naaman, the enemy. So if you wonder what the grace of God looks like, it looks like this young girl.
So Naaman’s journey toward healing begins with the grace of another. Sometimes in order to be healed of that which eats us up inside, we have to be willing to receive the underserved love of another. So Naaman takes this servant girl at her word at travels to Israel the prophet Elisha sends the message to Naaman, “Go, and wash yourself in the river seven times. And your flesh will be restored.” Now, Naaman didn’t like this. Why? The text says that he was hoping Elisha would just come and wave his hands over him and heal him. Washing in a river seemed too simple. He wanted the magic healing. Which is so often how many of us want to be healed of our hurts, right? We don’t to have to put any work into it, we just want God to heal it. But maybe healing doesn’t work that way. Maybe healing isn’t instantaneous but is more of a process. A journey that takes time. But I also don’t think Naaman like the idea of washing in the river because in order to do that…he would have to take off his armor. And that demands him to be vulnerable. To expose the hidden thing. To reveal the secret.
I thought I could get away with lying to my friend. But then I was found out. It came in the form of a text – he knew. But here’s the thing, a part of me was relieved that he knew. Because I could feel the wait of my sin on my shoulders and within and I needed it to be healed. But only until it was exposed, until the armor of hiding was removed could the healing begin. I thought it was a little white lie and I thought it was for everyone involved. But it wasn’t. And it hurt my friend. I betrayed his trust; I didn’t deserve his love. But a couple days later, he wrote me an email. The subject line was “Forgiven.” And he said this: First and foremost, you are my friend whom I love unconditionally…” Remember healing always begins with unconditional love. He goes on, “I am hurt. I knew you knew but I needed to hear it from you. I can’t talk to you right now, but I will soon.” It was an emailed filled with grace – the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. Even me. Our relationship is not healed yet, but it’s on its way. All because what I was hiding was exposed.
Friends, part of healing involves exposing what hurts. Naaman is asked to wash in the river. Which means he has to take off that which he uses to protect himself. What armor do you wear to hide your hurts? Do you act happy all the time, acting like everything is all good and then you cry yourself to sleep? Or are you just angry and bitter all the time, like an abused dog that snaps at anyone who comes near – that way no one can ever get close to really know who you are? Or do you spend your time caring for other people’s hurts, keeping yourself so busy so that no one asks what hurts you keep hidden? If we want to be healed of something, we’re going to have be exposed.
Take off your armor, Elisha the prophet says to Naaman the leper. Bath in the waters of the river and you will be cleansed. And Naaman does. And he was healed.
This story was close to Jesus’ heart. It was in his first sermon and it almost got him killed because he spoke of God’s love for the foreigner and the enemy. I wonder if Jesus had this story on his mind when he encountered those ten lepers. One of them being a Samaritan, the enemy of Israel as well.
God loves you. And God loves your enemy. The way God loves us is to intrude in our lives and to remake us into something that is lovely. So, what do you keep hidden that needs to be healed? And how might that unconditional love of God be inviting you to bring it out into the light so that it might be transformed into something lovely?
We begin a study on Islam this week. Sometimes I think Muslims are viewed as the enemy of Christians, the enemy of our culture. And today we have two stories about the grace-filled, healing love of God that breaks all boundaries and extends even to our enemies. Perhaps this class is away for God to heal us as Christians. To heal us of our prejudice. To heal us of our ignorance. To heal us of our fear these neighbors that God has placed in our lives. And perhaps by exposing us to that, God will be at work, remaking us into something lovely. AMEN
 Tom Long quoting Janet Soskice – Sermon preached at Luther Seminary on October 9, 2013.